Diplomatic crisis in the Gulf: old hostilities and new dangers

 

One month after the outbreak of the diplomatic crisis in the Gulf and in the wake of Qatar’s rejection of Saudi demands, it is more than ever imperative to understand the relations that have been historically linking the Peninsula’s countries one with the other and one against the other

 

One month ago, just a few days after Trump’s visit to the Middle East reconsolidated the Washington-Riyadh relationship, several Arab countries severed their diplomatic ties with Qatar; closed all maritime, land and sea links with Doha; and expelled all Qataris residing within their borders. Among those countries, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt stand particularly out – both for their geopolitical importance and for the major role they have been playing in pulling the strings that have led to the crisis that is currently paralyzing the Gulf.

Riyadh and the Arab countries that followed its steps motivated their move through a series of accusation against Doha according to which the latter would have supported groups such as Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas while also maintaining cooperative and cordial ties with Iran – Saudi Arabia’s nemesis.

Faced with the rejection of all accusations on part of Doha and with the support it found in Turkey, Iran and –though with more softer tones- Kuwait and Oman, the “group of four” has proceeded two weeks later to present to Qatar a series of 13 measures with which it was expected to comply within 10 days in order to end the crisis and its isolation within the GCC.

As of today, with Monday’s deadline now passed, Doha has denounced the Saudi requests (that go from the interruption of all links with those groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood that Riyadh labels as terrorist, to the cessation of any cordial relation with Iran, to the shutting down of the network al Jazeera, to the closure of a Turkish military base in Qatar) as unacceptable and a threat to Qatar’s sovereignty. This refusal on part of Doha seems thus to disappoint the hopes of those who had believed in the possibility of a swift end to what has emerged as the worst diplomatic crisis ever in the Gulf region.

On the background of a crisis of such seriousness that not only has no precedents but that also has the potential to change drastically the balances within the GCC and the Arab-Sunni sphere, it becomes fundamental to understand the relationships that have historically defined friendships and hostilities in the Arabic Peninsula and how they are now reflecting on the current events.

Historically, Qatar has characterized itself as the Gulf country with the most autonomous foreign policy with respect to the general line traced by Saudi Arabia and the UAE and followed by the other members of the Council. Indeed, it has always maintained cordial relations with Iran; it has hosted members of the Brotherhood when they were expelled from Sisi’s Egypt, as well as leader of Hamas and representatives of those fringe of the Afghan Taliban open to dialogue with Kabul; it has supported Hamas and its government over Gaza; it has let Al Jazeera become in 2011 a channel of support for the values and the demands that were igniting the Arab Spring and that many fears were causing instead in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain.

It thus emerges how Qatar, with respect to the other Arab-Sunni countries of the peninsula, is a sui generis actor. Interestingly, despite Qatar’s attempts to conjugate its autonomous choices of foreign policy with the necessity to conform with the line dominating within the GCC, this has not been enough to placate the hostility towards Doha on part of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, that has indeed translated into diplomatic tensions more than once.

For Saudi Arabia, in particular, it is the Iran factor to be crucial. Since 2011, with the collapse of traditional regimes in the Middle East and the breaking out of brutal civil wars that have exacerbated the conflict between Shiites and Sunnis, Iran has found room –in Syria, Yemen and Iraq- to assert itself as major regional actor with whom nor its Sunni rivals nor the west could refrain from dealing. This ascent on part of Iran has caused several worries in Riyadh, that has had to cope both with the economic difficulties caused by the drop in the global price of oil and with the threats to security caused by the war in Yemen, by a Shiite population calling for ever more rights, and from a weakening of the ties with Washington under Obama. In this context, it has become crucial for Riyadh to maintain its credibility as major power by asserting its role as regional hegemon vis-à-vis Iran, and it is in the optic of this tough rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia that the isolation imposed by the latter against Qatar needs to be read.

On their part, the UAE seem to be less obsessed with the Iranian nightmare that bothers Riyadh’s sleep and seem rather to put more emphasis on the necessity for Qatar to cut all ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and all the other Islamist groups of the region. Abu Dhabi, in fact, sees those groups as a dangerous destabilizing force and as a serious threat to the sustainability of the regional and peninsular status quo on which its foreign policy and its alliances rest. To this, it is then to be added how the UAE hope that the isolation –and therefore the diplomatic weakening- of Qatar can induce the US to transfer to its country the military base it actually has in Qatar.

The UAE’s fears regarding the support provided by Doha to Islamist groups active in the region is also shared by Bahrain and Egypt. Since February 2011, when the Arab spring’s protests engulfed the streets of Manama and threatened the stability of the al-Khalifa family, Bahrain is a strenuous defender of the status quo that the Islamist groups close to Doha seem willing to upset in the name of their political programs of reformism.

A similar concern is found in Cairo: here, since the coup that led Sisi to power in 2013, there has been a tough repression against the Brotherhood and any group connected to them and the government is engaged in a daily fight with Islamist-inspired groups that threaten the country’s security in less centralized areas such as the Sinai Peninsula. Moreover, the tough financial difficulties of the past years have contributed to consolidating the ties between Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, as the gulf countries have provided Egypt with substantial financial aid.

Conversely, Oman and Kuwait have historically played the role of mediators between Qatar –with whom they maintain friendly relations- and the other members of the GCC. Like Qatar, in fact, they have maintained mostly cordial relations with Iran and they similarly believe in the importance of inserting the enhancement of the Gulf-Iran relations in the broader framework of the fight against terrorism and regional instability. Like Doha, then, they have deep ties with Teheran in the field of energy: Oman has been planning for some time to begin importing Iranian gas through a pipeline connecting the Iranian province of Hormuzgan with Sohar, and Kuwait also seems to have recently initiated negotiations with Iran to import its gas.

The crisis that is interesting the Gulf is thus taking place on the background of pre-existing tensions and rivalries that the latest events have not but exacerbated. Because of the longtime nature of these tensions, making predications on what might be the consequences if Qatar and its four neighbors did not find a common line of agreement is extremely difficult. The only assertion that can be made with certainty –and with preoccupation- is that, if an agreement is not reached, the dynamics that have existed in the region until now would be upset and the regional security further compromised.

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The diplomatic crisis in the Gulf: Saudi Arabia’s hazard, Qatar’s isolation and Iran’s potential win

 

Where does the diplomatic crisis that has been unfolding in the Gulf in the past couple of days stems from and where does it risk leading the region

 

In what to many has been a familiar déjà-vu, a diplomatic crisis with Qatar at the centre of it has been unfolding in the past couple of days in the Gulf. However, despite not being anything new to the region’s inner actors and outside experts, this time the diplomatic rift has assumed more dramatic tones: unlike what happened in 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and the Maldives did not limit to sever diplomatic ties with Doha but also severed all sea, land and air ties; issued expulsion orders to Qataris residing in their countries; and expelled Qatar from the Saudi-led coalition that is fighting in Yemen against the Houthi rebels.

According to what reported by Saudi news agencies on Monday 5th of May, the reasons that led Riyadh to adopt such tough measures against Qatar and that led the other countries mentioned above to follow suit are to be found in Doha’s financial and material support to terrorist and extremist groups such as Al Qaeda and to its excessively close ties to Shia Iran.

As a matter of fact, Qatar has historically characterized itself for a somewhat independent foreign policy that has at times created rifts and tensions between the Emirate and the other GCC countries: it has always maintained cordial ties to Iran, with which it manages gas exploitation in South Pars, the world’s largest gas reserve that lies in the Gulf’s waters between Iran and Qatar; it has traditionally sponsored and provided a safe haven to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood; it has maintained close and cooperative links with PA’s rival Hamas; and in 2011 its news outlet Al Jazeera largely supported the Arab Spring that was conversely arousing the fears of GCC countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen.

Nevertheless, Qatar has always tried to balance its quite independent foreign and regional policy with substantive alignment with the GCC, as its involvement in the war in Yemen to restore President Hadi and its participation in the fight against ISIS proves. Therefore, the decision of Saudi Arabia to cut all sort of ties with Doha, without even clarifying which steps should Qatar take to step out of its current isolation, needs to be explained in light of other and deeper considerations than mere accusations of links with terrorism (from which not even Saudi Arabia itself is exempted) and with Iran (a country with which also Oman has pretty cordial relations).

The tough moves embraced by Saudi Arabia against Qatar are taking place just a couple of weeks after President Trump made of Riyadh the first destination of its first Presidential trip abroad. There, the American President’s words and acts (among which the signature of a new arms deal worth 110 billion $ stands out) revealed an American Middle Eastern policy that sees in Saudi Arabia a major strategic partner with whom to fight terrorism and curb Iran’s aspirations to regional hegemony.

Unsurprisingly, but perhaps more quickly and more dramatically than expected, this new attitude of Washington towards Riyadh has made the kingdom more self-confident in its self-entrusted role as Sunni leader and has encouraged its already assertive posture vis-à-vis Iran. Thus, emboldened by a retrieved friendship with the US that the years of the Obama administration had seemed to cool, Saudi Arabia has decided to act promptly and to assert its prominence as Sunni anti-Iranian leader by cutting ties with a Qatari neighbour judged not belligerent enough against Teheran.

In doing so, though, Riyadh is playing with fire and it is risking unleashing further tensions in an already troubled region.

As Qatar sees itself isolated in the Gulf peninsula and with no reliable friends in the GCC, its only hopes of re-inclusion rest with the mediating role that Turkey and the US might play. However, until now neither Ankara nor Washington has clearly intervened in the diplomatic rift on Qatar’s behalf: the former seems reticent to openly criticize Riyadh’s assertiveness and seems to be considering the UAE as a possible country where to transfer its military base currently installed in Qatar; the latter, on its part, is too absorbed by the fight against the PKK and the dynamics of the Syrian war to search another confrontation.

In this context of deep isolation, in which old enemies resurface and old friends shied away, Qatar might thus find itself in a situation in which strengthening its ties with Teheran becomes the best and only path out of the solitude. If this did occur, the shift of a Sunni major strategic and economic power like Qatar to Iran’s camp would risk exacerbating further the dangerous confrontation between Riyadh and Teheran, with unpredictable –but surely destructive- effects on the entire region.

Saudi Arabia should therefore remember that by playing with fire you risk sparking flames that you cannot control -and getting burnt yourself.